DTX

Kyle Steed

Shaping an Identity

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When I see public art, I’m struck by how much bigger it is than me, and that’s true of art itself. It’s bigger than all of us.

__Kyle Steed

Known primarily as a Public Artist, Kyle is an illustrator, designer, painter, husband, and father who with raw honesty and a patchwork of self-awareness he challenges himself to interconnect these roles. Though committed to his public work for big names like Mt. Dew and HP, his personal work mirrors not just a facet of his interest and expertise, but embodies the balance of their totality. His story is built around an examination of belonging, and the discipline of an intimate practice.

The evolution of his expressive work began as an unconscious therapy, a journal of contour and color that twist and interlock. It’s a sort of anthropology of his path into art, beginning as a young directionless twenty-something, to a stint in the Air Force, to his beginnings as a freelance designer. Art and its practice has become a refuge, a canvas on which to grapple with his deepest insecurities and questions about himself.

After dropping out of an Art and Design program in Ft. Worth, Texas, Kyle knew very little about how to get himself into a creative career.  Enlisting in the Air Force was a sort of last resort that became a defining period of self-discovery. “Even with my creative aspirations at the time, I had no idea how to execute them. Maybe I didn’t know myself well enough, but the technology for teaching myself and sharing my work effectively wasn’t really there yet, either.” So it was off to basic, then to intensive courses in Morse code and signal analysis. “It was super boring, honestly, but more than anything taught me about perseverance and overcoming obstacles.”

Estranged from his life goals, Kyle kept a series of journals and sketchbooks that documented his state of mind. “There were some really dark and lonely days. Just inherently knowing who I am and what I wanted in life, but feeling trapped by this very rigid system for life. But one year to the day that I signed up [for the Air Force], I got off the plane in Japan and was in a totally new world. It took a long time to get established, comfortable, and feel at home there.”

But it was during those same years that Kyle met and wed his wife Amanda, and perhaps not surprisingly, clung to his passion for art and design. “I had bought a Mac before the Air Force and started more or less teaching myself how to use Photoshop and Illustrator. I still had those tools with me in Japan, but I was also painting, and drawing, and keeping a journal. I kept up several different facets of creativity, and that was really my motivation, rather my sanity, while I was in the military.”

Fortuitously, Kyle also commends his time in the service for teaching him the necessary skills for beginning a new career and launching his own business. “I don’t know if before the military I even knew the right ways to challenge myself. I definitely felt privileged, and entitled. I feel like I am still recovering from those tendencies. I mean, it’s tough to get over yourself. Having kids, and being married definitely changes you in that way. I’m still growing up little by little, using every opportunity in life as a teaching moment.”

After returning to Dallas, Kyle landed a job as the sole designer for a small IT company with the help of a friend. “Before getting that job, I had been working at a bookstore for about a month at that point. I just had this sobering moment there, straightening books on a shelf after we had closed, where I just knew, this cannot be it for me. It made me hungry to put myself out there. I didn’t even know at that point if I was truly capable of doing the work, but I was taking Intro to Web Design at night, and learning as I went. A lot of the same lessons I learned from Morse code helped in that time of my life. I would just get so overwhelmed by the work, and have to push through and figure it out.”

After years of learning and establishing his skills and style in web design, lettering, branding and illustration, Kyle is now freelancing full-time, working from home and painting more frequently. But the longer he’s worked, the challenges haven’t disappeared only transformed along with him. Adding on the role of father to two baby girls has brought new joys and challenges, graduating his responsibilities from merely showing up to do a job into living out his work at home.

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For Kyle, the secret is learning to embrace the blurry lines between work and life, and do away with them altogether. “Now that I work at home, I often have to ask myself how can I transition from artist/designer to father/husband. There really is no separation between the two,” he asserts. “I need to figure out how to be all of that all of the time. Being with my family, sharing parts of my creativity with them is just as important as sharing my life in the creative process. I don’t think it’s healthy to hang up certain aspects of your life like coats in a closet. We like to classify things or put labels on things, because it helps us understand. But humans are anything but compartmentalized. We are so complex.”

Striving for this level of emotional integration between life and work couldn’t be more counter to the modern ideals of some fabled “work/life” balance. This way of work demands the act of facing yourself: your limitations, propensity to check out emotionally, your ego, anxiety. These are the barriers to getting out of your own way, and when we work alone they can be easy to cover up. But when Kyle’s wife Amanda became his Project Manager, the option to hide was gone for good. “Before that I had my own process and systems [for my work]. Not that they were the best, but I had control of it all. It was so challenging to relinquish that and just let go. I think about that in terms of my future as well, like how it applies to being a parent. It’s true even in my work that I have to let go and not control or force it. It’s not always easy,” he admits. “I mean, marriage isn’t always easy. The dynamic of working together has forced our hand. It’s made us communicate so much more. But at the end of the day, I’m so thankful I have someone that’s on my side that I know I can trust.”

In the spirit of opening himself up even more to his family and his work, Kyle began seeing a counselor. His goal was to learn how to better communicate and acknowledge his own feelings, but soon realized it would be a conduit to more personal personal work. “My counselor pointed out to me that I’m not very curious about my emotions or feelings, I have a tendency to just judge them and think of them as right or wrong. I am trying to learn how instead to stop and wonder why.” The experience has also turned him into an advocate of this type of guided self-examination. “I wish that more people went to counseling. There are certain barriers like price, and social stigma that keep so many people out of it, and going implies that you are crazy or that something is wrong, which is true. But everyone has something wrong with them. In counseling you have to get comfortable realizing you don’t know as much as you think you did.”

His paintings reflect this season of introspection. With their bendable limbs and interlocking contours of bright color, these figures convey a perspective of himself he can inspect from the outside at a level not possible in the natural. “I was playing around with fitting objects into tight spaces, and adjusting proportions, and the feeling of a struggle to fit in. My feelings are embedded into the work, feelings about fitting in socially, or into my own skin, even. Some of it is about how we can contort ourselves to fit into certain situations, representing the awkwardness or discomfort of that. I think partly it’s about coming to terms with being a bit awkward at times. The feeling of trying to force myself into those situations is like I’m trying to curl up on a kid’s sized mattress. Curling up so tightly, hoping it will make me feel safe or like I fit.”

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It’s perhaps strange to identify this type of inner homelessness hidden inside the neat lines and brightly colored shapes, but I’d wager it’s the same with many of us, as well. There is the struggle to fit in, to accept ourselves, and as we grow and change, to somehow obscure ourselves to avoid being known. It’s important that we recognize this ‘homelessness’ as normal, healthy even, on the journey to getting to know ourselves lest we judge our feelings and miss the instruction they offer. It’s part of taking risks, pursuing change, and adapting to who you will become in different seasons, even different roles in a given day. “I really have to come to grips with the choices I am making in painting. While I am working on something on the computer there is always a ctrl+Z option. In painting, if I don’t like it, the act of changing it is much more involved.”

But the choice not to correct those mistakes, to allow himself to be human when he comes to the canvas, is too, an exercise in acceptance. “I would rather leave the mistakes in – the pencil sketch here or there that isn’t perfectly straight, or the line that isn’t perfectly straight – because to me that means I made it, I put my hand on it. If I’d made it in the computer, it would be perfectly straight. Anybody could have made that line. I’m the only one who has my own hands, who can make my mistakes.”

Whether it’s transitioning from one role or project on to the next, we have to learn how to be at peace with our own decisions, have courage, and faith to take the next step. “Everything feels like a stepping stone. My military 

career was a stepping stone to doing web design, which was a step towards freelancing. Now that I’m freelancing full-time and painting, I’m curious what all of this will be a step towards next.”

Wherever this process leads Kyle next, he’ll still be diving deeper, pursuing greater connection with himself and others. “I want to spend my whole life refining my work, so moving from one thing to the next is hard for me because I want to keep pursuing perfection and patience. I want to have bigger and bolder work, work that’s not only larger in size but in impact. I want to do more public art, I love the way it impacts me, and I want to share that with people. When I see public art, I’m struck by how much bigger it is than me, and that’s true of art itself. It’s bigger than all of us.”

 

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